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Ocean Currents

When Creative Worlds Collide in Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg’s New Sea Walls: A community collaboration celebrating street art, fishing communities and ecosystem health

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© Edel Mohr

The city of St. Petersburg, Florida has long been a world-renowned arts destination. Yet a relatively unknown fact is that it boasts one of the highest densities of marine scientists per-capita. As a marine biologist who moonlights as an artist, these two disciplines are now converging in my own personal career and geography. Early in my career, science communication was presented as a major topic for scientists to develop. Art and science are both highly creative fields. In science, we follow the scientific method: an iterative process of testing hypotheses and building on past knowledge. In art, we do the same thing: experiment with a process, view the result and develop new techniques to build on knowledge from the last work. They both require creative thinking and adaptability, and both have a tendency toward encouraging exploration of the world around us. The two new Sea Walls that were installed during the SHINE Mural Festival last month represent a perfect merger of these disciplines and focus on two topics of local significance: the heritage of fishing communities and the importance of overall ecosystem health and management.

These Sea Walls represent an incredible collaboration from the community and took more than a year in planning and coordination. Funding was awarded for this project by a grant which I co-authored with NOAA Fisheries through the NOAA Heritage Program. We partnered with SHINE Mural Festival, which fully administered the installation of the murals including site and artist selection, purchasing materials and feeding the artists. To develop the mural messaging and incorporate a cultural component, we followed the PangeaSeed Sea Walls model of using art to engage and empower the community on serious issues our ocean is facing. Before the artists installed their murals, we took them on educational excursions to educate them on the topics. We focused on celebrating the rich history of fishing in the Tampa Bay area by visiting Cortez and Madeira Beach, areas with strong multigenerational ties to the fishing industry.

Cortez—A Historic Commercial Fishing Village

Cortez (home of A.P. Belle Fish Company) is a female-owned and operated commercial fishing fleet, fish house and restaurant. The village goes back six generations and has a strong reputation of being a working waterfront.

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© Catherine Bruger / Ocean Conservancy

Upper right: One of the last remaining net camps in Cortez.

Lower right: Tre’ Packard (PangeaSeed), Jeff Pulver (NOAA Fisheries), Catherine Bruger (Ocean Conservancy), Karen Belle (owner of A.P. Belle Fish House), Blaine Fontana, Jeremy Nichols and Thomas Paterek (Suncoast Surfrider).

John’s Pass Madeira Beach—Recreational Fishing

Hubbard’s Marina on John’s Pass helped our artists get a different perspective on multi-generational fishing from a recreational fishing family’s perspective. Hubbard’s is a party boat company, taking out passengers on half-day to multi-day trips. They educate fishers on the water about different fish, venting and descending devices, and their appropriate use. Hubbard’s focus is on education and providing a fun experience on the water with the opportunity to catch fish.

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© Catherine Bruger
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© Catherine Bruger
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Blaine sharing his rendering with Capt. Dylan Hubbard. © Catherine Bruger

After having the chance to experience both commercial and recreational fishing communities, the artists got to work on creating their massive messages.

Blaine Fontana x Plastic Birdie

Blaine Fontana
The final mural by Blaine Fontana and Plastic Birdie. © Edel Mohr

Blaine Fontana and Plastic Birdie (Jeremy Nichols) flew in from Portland to create the largest mural in SHINE’s history (175 feet long!) which can be found at Bama Sea Products, 756 28th St S and fronts the Pinellas Trail. The theme of their mural is the heritage and celebration of local fishing communities.

Blaine and Jeremy chose to feature an academic style approach of highlighting seven fishing communities along Florida’s Gulf Coast. We worked closely with several anthropologists at NOAA Fisheries to describe the geographic and cultural significance of these special places.

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© Tre' Packard
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© Jeff Pulver

Despite several days of rain and high temperatures, Blaine and Jeremy were able to finish this stunning mural in one week. To add to the theme of fishing communities, they chose to highlight the significance of healthy ecosystems as well by incorporating vibrant commercially and recreationally significant local species such as yellowfin grouper, moray eel and spotted eagle ray as well as critically-threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals. The line connecting everything alludes to the connection between not just the human element, but the ecosystem as well.

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Process shot of Jeremy Nichols painting a giant moray eel. © Tre' Packard
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Blaine using a yellowfin grouper as a reference. © Tre' Packard

Vitale Bros “Bait and Switch”

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© Edel Mohr

Local legends—the Vitale Bros—designed this mural to highlight the impact of a diverse marine ecosystem. Their mural is located at 301 20th Street S and includes a red snapper and sea turtle. The fish species displayed are native to our region and playfully interact with classic cartoon imagery and pop art to appeal to a younger generation. As fathers of young children, Johnny and Paul Vitale created this to emphasize the impact we have on our oceans because the next generation will be left to suffer the consequences.

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Close-up shot of the iconic red snapper by the Vitale Bros. © Catherine Bruger
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© Tre' Packard

The concept is reminiscent of old comic books that featured sea monkeys (an ecosystem in a sphere: “Just add water”) while juxtaposing concepts of fishing characters throughout pop-culture history and our nostalgic romance with our ocean.

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© Tre' Packard

On the final day of the event, SHINE hosted a festival and held a panel with our partners speaking about the significance of using art as a form of communication, the significance of our fishing communities and the importance of ecosystem health. Despite the weather, the festival was attended by several thousand members of the community, including Mayor Rick Kriseman, who attended to support their love of art and healthy oceans. SHINE illuminates the power of art in public spaces to revitalize areas and unite our community—through this partnership, we now have two bright and SHINY new Sea Walls. We are so grateful for the true community collaboration that brought art and science together in new ways in our artsy ocean-front city. If you are ever in town, make sure a mural tour to visit these impactful free art installations is on your list of things to do!

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